This drama is set during the Edo period (1824-5), decades before Commodore Matthew Perry helped open Japan to the Western world with the Convention of Kanagawa. This historical event has some significance in the story of Tsuma wa, Kunoichi because the male lead is involved in a plot to build a ship that can sail farther than Japanese ships had sailed before, which was a huge deal for a country determined to remain isolated from the West.
I'm sure you'll find this hard to believe, but I'm not very well-versed in Japanese history (yes, Wikipedia is my main source of knowledge of these things, I'm not ashamed). However, I do find this era to be a fascinating setting, and I love that this drama ties in so well with what was happening at the time (although I'm sure it is told from quite a progressive and modern point of view).
At the beginning of our story, Futaboshi Hikoma is a humble scholar living in a remote area, a man who studies the stars and seas. He is a gentle soul, permitted by his powerful clan to live his life devoted to learning astronomy, instead of the politics or warfare that a man of his position would usually be expected to study.
His life changes drastically when he is sent a young bride, Orie. They live in quiet contentment for a month before Orie suddenly leaves him, without any explanation. Futaboshi assumes she has gone to the city of Edo and follows her, followed by his adopted son, Ganjiro (more on him later).
Futaboshi takes up residence in a humble backstreet school, teaching the children and befriending the people of his new neighborhood. However, his clan leader, Matsuura Seizan, involves him in his plans to build a ship and set up trade with Western nations, thus improving their clan's political position and influence, as well as bringing in new wealth and learning. Seizan needs Futaboshi's knowledge to complete this task, but is also mindful of the danger that surrounds this plan.
Despite their short time together, Orie and Futaboshi have come to deeply love one another. His greatest desire is to bring her back home and live in peace together, hers is to keep him alive and find a way to remove herself from the life of a shinobi without being killed or hunted down for the rest of her life—a goal which is virtually impossible. Their star-crossed lovers theme is further emphasized through references to Orihime and Hikoboshi, aka Vega and Altair, and whose tragic tale is the basis of the Tanabata festival.
I really enjoyed watching this drama—it's full of action, adventure, political maneuvering, and, of course, an impossible love. The overall pace is more sedate than many other dramas, which does cause a bit of drag here and there, but I feel that it suits this drama and style of storytelling very well. There are plenty of well-choreographed action sequences throughout the whole drama, even if they are almost always in the dark, and they help keep the tempo of things up. Additionally, in the first half of the drama, Futaboshi is involved in solving several mysteries through his understanding of science, but these side stories become less important as the story continues.
One frustrating thing, however, is the number of times Futaboshi and Orie nearly meet, but don't actually meet. Yeah, I know it helps build the tension, and I know Orie is protecting her husband by staying away from him, but I get to the point where I just want them to find each other already.
There are plenty of frightening villains in this show—and most of them are either assassins, spies, samurais, or a combination thereof. They each bring a different level of danger into the lives of the main characters, and their dogged determination to kill one or both our main characters adds plenty of suspense to the story.
One of the things I really love about this drama is the attention to side characters. There isn't necessarily a lot of time spent on each one, but what time we get is quality time.
Take, for instance, the story of Tarokichi. Tarokichi is the foster-son of the family who puts Futaboshi up in Edo. He becomes one of Futaboshi's students, and becomes almost like a son to Futaboshi. He was abandoned a year earlier, and has been searching for his mother ever since, a plight Futaboshi sympathizes with. Together, they leave notices for those they are searching for and pray at the shrine to be able to find their loved ones.
Another great character is Futaboshi's adopted son, Ganjiro, who is actually older than Futaboshi. (Within a clan, it was common for men to be adopted to (more than by) a prominent figure among the clansmen, which sometimes led to adopted sons being older than their fathers (I believe).) Ganjiro is a simple man, a jovial fool, who is quite close to Seizan. However, Ganjiro may be more than he seems, which allows him to be more than a throwaway character used only for comedic relief.
Orie also has many important side characters in her orbit—her mother Masae, Ocho, another shinobi she has always thought of as a sister, and Otsuru, who has been a second mother to her, but has her own motivations. Each of these people have significant parts to play in the overall story of Orie and Futaboshi.
Seizan himself is a surprising character. He's middle-aged, yet still a great fighter. He's cunning, brave, and wise. He's determined to send out his ship no matter what it takes, he is a man of strong principles, but is also willing to bend for what he sees as the greater good of his nation, his clan, and his family. He's not a perfect man, but he's definitely an admirable one.
Another character I love is Shizuko, Seizan's daughter. She appears only in the second part of the story, Tsuma wa, Kunoichi Saishusho, but she is a fascinating person in her own right. Without giving away too much, she is a noblewoman who dominates at swordplay and has been thwarted over and over in her attempts to be married. After meeting Futaboshi and seeing his lack of ability with the sword, she scorns him, but can't stay away from him. And while she never moves solidly into second-lead territory (mostly due to Futaboshi's obliviousness), she creates plenty of romantic tension in the story overall.
This brings up something else I love about this drama—the love story between the fierce warrior and the gentle scholar. While Futaboshi is an incompetent fighter, focusing more on scholarly pursuits and dreaming of faraway places, he is never emasculated by Orie's strength and proficiency as a fighter. He is still brave and capable in other ways, and even tries hard to learn fighting skills in order to protect the children in his care, though he doesn't improve too much.
And Orie is allowed to be BA, but still has very traditionally feminine qualities as well. She is conflicted by her sense of duty, her love for Futaboshi, and her desire to make a better life for herself (which may or may not include Futaboshi). She is a complex mixture of strength, weakness, honor, sweetness, stubbornness, vulnerability, and intelligence, which makes her character more realistic.
In all, this drama is a fun one to watch. You may have to exercise patience with it sometimes, but really, there's plenty of action, political intrigue, mystery and interesting plotlines to keep things going. And the core of the story—the love story of Futaboshi and Orie—is beautifully told and sweetly executed. (Just don't expect sparks flying all over the place. It's not that kind of drama.) I wholeheartedly recommend this drama, especially if you enjoy sageuks or other historical adaptations as much as I do.